Mr Wilson's Opal's Comet

A journey of hope, positivity and remembrance
Steven Harrison
June 9, 2024

Opal’s Comet, a golden, floating barge to capture your imagination, touch your senses and feed your curiosity. A plume of sunshine to brighten up your towpath tread, wheel or run, maybe stop you in your tracks and wonder at it’s incredible presence cruising down the canal. Or perhaps, engage with its offer of music and song whilst you walk alongside, slowing your pace of stride and thought to be absorbed by it’s creative power.

The alchemy of art can soak into our very being and alter the path we take in life. This spirited, vibrant piece of artwork on a waterways pilgrimage is a catalyst for change, so stand up and meet the day, gather up the best of you and celebrate our shared values.

Opal’s Comet has sailed into the Calder Valley as part of CultureDale -  Calderdale’s Year of Culture, celebrating Calderdale’s 50th anniversary with a year-long programme of art events, activities and community projects which reflect the rich history, talent and diversity of the people of Calderdale, set in an awe-inspiring landscape. 

Cruising through this valley of wonders came Mr Wilson’s Opal’s Comet. Starting at Warland Bridge No 40, in the high South Pennines, in a landscape of rough grassland and acid peat, emerged the yellow sun smile of Opal’s Comet. A May time, inspirational gift to Calderdale. Six days of navigation, firstly on the Rochdale Canal to Sowerby Bridge; then onto Brighouse on the Calder and Hebble Navigation. 

This waterborne miracle of imagination was born from the fragments of a dream that was reluctant to leave the dreamer. It developed next into a short story, which led onto the creation of Opal’s Comet. The linking narrative that weaves it together is the journey through grief and loss that many experienced, especially during Covid-19 and beyond. This outdoor, impassioned, impressive artwork is a visually impactful waterways pilgrimage, exploring the different seasons of grief. The songs that the yellow clad songsters sing whilst cruising along the canal, gives the towpath congregation a moment for contemplation, engagement and conversation alongside the slowly moving barge.

I first encountered Opal’s Comet on it’s tough journey down to the town of Todmorden. Many locks and bridges to negotiate on it’s gradual descent. The glowing face of the smiling, sun-clad sail of Opal’s Comet cruised it’s way in front of The Great Wall of Tod. A Four million brick backdrop to greet the golden barge as it pushed through the water, filling the air with music; bouncing the lyrics off the mighty wall and spreading them far and wide. An entourage of towpath treaders, some clad in yellow coats walked alongside the barge; some in deep thought, others engaging with the songs and a few with a moist look in their eyes.

The barge slipped into Todmorden Lock 19 to the sound of music, from both the golden clothed singers and the crowd that had gathered around the lock. The animated singers and musicians engaged the crowd, with the lyrics from the song, Borrow Time. There was a powerful pause for thought as the words seemed to resinate with the crowd of onlookers. It was a wonder and discovery moment; people coming out experiencing the canal on their doorstep, being active in the natural world: industrial heritage from the 18th century, now with a modern veneer displaying a connectedness with us, our history and our sense of place.

The golden barge sank slowly and solemnly down into the clasp of the lock walls; the music and the voices being absorbed into the gush and rush of the emptying water as the smiling, sun sails were lowered and shaded by the lock’s embrace. The power of the moment left a mythical narrative message that lingered in the air. People gathered together, meeting the day, sharing the space as generations before them had listened to stories, sang songs, celebrated and explored the seasons of life. This unites and fuses us together in folk tradition; orally passing on stories, creating a cultural thread down the generations. Opal’s Comet, a waterborne six-day odyssey, is keeping those cultural traditions alive.

The raising of the guillotine lock was accompanied by cheers from the crowd which had gathered by the sides of the lock and across The Golden Lion Bridge, that overlooked the canal. With a roar of voices and a clapping of hands the pilgrimage barge journeyed on. The crowd stood for a while collecting it’s thoughts about what they had just witnessed, whilst Opal’s Comet continued it’s journey along The Rochdale Canal. The towpath trudgers, striders and strollers wondered at this golden spectacle as it sang it’s way through the Calder Valley, passing through Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd and Luddenden Foot on it’s way to Sowerby Bridge.

I next caught up with Opal’s Comet slipping under Tower Hill Bridge No 1a, preparing itself to enter Tuel Lane lock in Sowerby Bridge. With a drop of 19 feet 8-and-a-half inches, it is the deepest lock in the UK. A lively crowd had gathered, to bear witness to the release of a boiling cataract of water as the lock loses it’s watery load allowing the pilgrim barge to descend into the depths of the walled giant. Two Canal and River Trust lock keepers stood sentinel, with their windlasses guarding Opal’s Comet’s passage through the mighty Tuel Lock. Out through 114 yds of Tuel Lane tunnel under the main road, the barge was free to re-engage with the towpath traffic that had come to celebrate it’s journey or those, simply taken by surprise by this piece of modern folklore singing it’s way along the canal.

My last encounter with Opal’s Comet, was at Salterhebble basin on The Calder and Hebble Navigation near Halifax. This was the last day of the voyage of this full-flavoured, forward-moving symbol of opportunity, optimism and hope. This piece of golden art searched out the best in us, as it sailed through the Calder Valley’s towns and countryside. It sailed through our ordinary days, breaking up the usual, the normal, rattling our fixed times and routines; allowing us to connect with others and ourselves.

The music galvanised the air with an emotive energy as the barge left Salterhebble through a guillotine lock towards it’s final destination of Brighouse. There was a visible, palpable musical trace left in the wake of the golden barge. This floating, moving artwork had cruised through our personal spaces for a short time and had left a lasting legacy for us to ponder over. Art will always bring us together and embrace us with it’s mysteries. Mr Wilson’s Opal’s Comet illuminated The Calder Valley, leaving behind it a charged atmosphere for us to savour.

Header image by Kate Phillips